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The best books on Jewish Vienna

recommended by Brigid Grauman

Uncle Otto's Puppet Theatre: A Jewish Family Saga by Brigid Grauman

Uncle Otto's Puppet Theatre: A Jewish Family Saga
by Brigid Grauman


In the late 19th and early 20th century, Vienna had a vibrant intellectual and cultural life, embraced and at times led by key figures in its large Jewish community. All that would disappear with the rise of anti-Semitism and the Anschluss. Many Jews fled or committed suicide. Others were deported to concentration camps. After the war some went back, but Vienna would never be the same. Here Brigid Grauman, whose father's family were assimilated Jews from Vienna, recommends books that evoke that poignant, tragic period that ended with World War II.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

Uncle Otto's Puppet Theatre: A Jewish Family Saga by Brigid Grauman

Uncle Otto's Puppet Theatre: A Jewish Family Saga
by Brigid Grauman

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You’re recommending books on Jewish Vienna, a place that produced a lot of famous people: Sigmund Freud, Melanie Klein, Wittgenstein, Mahler, Stefan Zweig, Karl Popper, Theodor Herzl, to name just a few. But it also produced your father’s family and my mother’s family and I have this feeling that there must be hundreds of thousands of us, scattered around the globe, all very interested in this tragic period leading up to the Holocaust. Is that what you found when you were researching your book about your family, Uncle Otto’s Puppet Theatre: A Jewish Family Saga?

Yes, there are a lot of us out there. My book looks into Jewish identity and to what extent various members of the family felt or didn’t feel Jewish, and how I myself feel Jewish. That resonates with many who had family in Vienna or in Austro-Hungary, in Czechoslovakia or elsewhere, and who ask themselves questions like when did they begin to feel in mortal danger? When did longstanding anti-Semitism suddenly put their lives at risk?

I also believe my family’s story resonates with many migrants today. You leave your country and have to start over in a place that is not your homeland, where your former status and points of reference are gone. Immigrants from Syria and elsewhere are experiencing that now. Their qualifications are no longer relevant. That’s what a lot of Jewish families experienced, and people are still experiencing today.

I think Sigmund Freud wrote in An Autobiographical Study that he’d made a decision to remain Jewish, at a time when lots of Jews in Vienna tried to assimilate by converting. My mother’s family converted to Catholicism. In your book, you write that your father didn’t even realize he was Jewish until the Anschluss, is that right?

My father was 12 at the time of the Anschluss. Both he and his brother had been brought up as Catholics. He had the notion that maybe uncle so-and-so was Jewish, that another uncle was agnostic and that he was Catholic, that religion was something you choose. The ethnic dimension came as a great shock to him, that you were Jewish and it wasn’t a matter of choice, so you belonged to a persecuted race.

My family had different attitudes to their Jewish origins, but they all married Jews. I don’t talk about that in my book, but it did make me wonder if for many it would still have been a huge step to marry outside a Jewish circle, even if they considered themselves assimilated and no longer observed Jewish tradition. They called themselves assimilants—that’s how my grandparents defined themselves.

There were even family members, like my grandfather, who were anti-Semitic. He’d been brought up in Brno according to Jewish tradition, but as a liberal lawyer he saw Judaism as retrograde. It irritated him when his brother-in-law said that something he did or said was typically Jewish. My uncle and his wife, both Jewish and settled in America, chose Quakerism because their Jewish origins were not something they were proud of or comfortable with, long after they had left Austria and Germany.

It’s so confusing, isn’t it?

It’s complex, yes.

Given the topic is Jewish Vienna, a quote from your book I wanted to highlight is where your father says something like, ‘Of course, I was young and stood on the sidelines, but there was something in the air, something that made me feel I had witnessed a peak of civilization that lasted until the Anschluss, and being a Jew was part of that.’ That’s also a part of the story, isn’t it? That this was a unique, amazing, special place. Could you tell me a bit more about what he was getting at?

My father was always aware that he had escaped death in a concentration camp. There were ten boy cousins in his family and half of them died in the camps. Why not him? Why his cousins?

At the same time, he was aware of the Jewish middle classes’ appetite for culture. One of my great-grandfathers ran a schnapps bar in Brigittenau, which at the time was one of Vienna’s two Jewish neighbourhoods (the other was Leopoldstadt). My other great-grandfather was a shoemaker. All their children became people who went to the opera, concerts, the theatre and exhibitions. They played instruments, they read Scandinavian authors like Ibsen and British ones like Shaw. They were passionate about all this. I think that was a very Jewish thing.

“For me, being Jewish is also about this feeling of not belonging anywhere, or of belonging in many places”

My great-grandfathers wanted their children to be well educated and were proud of them being interested in the arts. My Viennese grandfather—he of the schnapps bar—liked popular farces by authors like Nestroy, while his children would sing Lieder by Hugo Wolf. He didn’t understand their music, but he liked basking in the knowledge that they were more educated than he. That was what my father was referring to, this extremely cultured atmosphere he witnessed as a boy.

One of your father’s uncles was actually translating Shakespeare into German, is that right?

Yes, that was Richard Flatter.

I don’t remember if it was him or another of your relatives who really struggled in the States. I think for refugees it can be a tougher adjustment if you come from a more educated, literary background and then have to start from scratch.

That was my grandfather Arthur, who was an international lawyer in Vienna and extremely happy in his position. He would go to the Landtmann cafe every morning before work for breakfast and the waiter would say, ‘Herr Grauman, your table’. When he emigrated to America, he naively believed that he could practise law there. And, of course, he couldn’t. He was in his early 50s, he spoke some English and French, but was unemployable as a lawyer.

The uncle you mentioned, Richard, was his brother-in-law. He was a playwright and translator of Shakespeare and a lover of the English language. But he ended up in London with no work and no money, because there was no work for a German-language author. He was cut off from his language and from his paradise, the Burgtheater in Vienna. This world he adored was suddenly removed from him. So yes, the intellectuals rarely had a craft they could transpose to another country and some ended up doing manual work.

Let’s go through the books you’re recommending we read to get a feel for this poignant period of Jewish Vienna before World War II. The first on your list is Tante Jolesch or the Decline of the West in Anecdotes by Friedrich Torberg. I’ve seen it described as “an understated triumph of  tragi-comic writing.”

This book is popular in Austria, but not so well known outside. It’s melancholy and nostalgic but also very funny. It evokes Jewish café life before the Anschluss. You had these eccentric characters who were often highly knowledgeable on all sorts of esoteric subjects. They spent their lives in the cafés because many lived in cramped, cold housing, so the café was their living room where they’d spend hours talking and arguing. They made their appointments there, took phone calls and received their mail. Torberg writes a string of anecdotes about these men, bringing to life sometimes famous, other times unknown figures. He said the fall of Austria was one of the most catastrophic incidents of humourlessness in world history.

And who is Tante Jolesch?

She is the aunt of one of Torberg’s Moravian friends but she is also the archetypal Jewish Austro-Hungarian matron whose statements are remembered down generations because they are both naïve and wise. Torberg describes this figure as the missing link between the Talmudic tradition of the ghetto and the emancipation culture of the coffee house.

Torberg was born in 1908 in Vienna but then went to Prague and became Czech after the First World War. He was a water polo champion, and as well as café life he tells the reader about the Jewish sports clubs. The idea of the ‘muscular’ Jew was that you don’t want emaciated, intellectual Jews, but Jews who excel at sports. In fact, there were Jewish sports clubs all over the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Jewish athletes who excelled at fencing, swimming, water polo, and most other sports.

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He writes about Tarock, the card game which was once played in Vienna and across the empire. He also delves into the warring origins of sachertorte. There’s sachertorte with jam in the middle and sachertorte with jam under the chocolate icing. He tells you all these stories, including one when he—or a friend—returns to Vienna after the war and goes back to Demel, one of the city’s best coffee shops. The waiter, who used to serve him before the Anschluss, shows him to a table and says, ‘The same as usual?’ That typifies Austria—the formality, the tact, and not acknowledging what happened during the war.

Torberg ended up in America, among the émigrés hired by Hollywood studios to write scripts, and one of quite a few Austrian Jews who became these $100-a-month scriptwriters. But he hated Hollywood so he went to New York and worked for Time magazine, which was starting a German edition. He disliked American materialism, and greatly missed Austria. After the war, he sent many letters to friends to find out how things were vis à vis anti-Semitism. His friends assured him that the atmosphere had completely changed, and to come back. Six years after the war had ended, he did return and was received with some honour. He was as fervently anti-communist as he’d already become in America. He is among many Jews—including my grandfather and my great-uncle—who returned to Vienna after the war because they couldn’t live anywhere else.

It’s interesting.

I don’t know if a book has been written about this, but it’s a really interesting subject, these people whose lives in Vienna had been destroyed but who came back. My great-uncle Richard wrote in his memoir that he would never return to Austria because, he said, ‘When I shake somebody’s hand I’ll never know what they did.’ But he did return, and to some acclaim as a translator. They published his complete works of Shakespeare, an ambition that had been interrupted by the Anschluss.

For somebody who’s interested in Jewish history and is visiting Vienna now: are some of the coffeehouses still there? Are there remnants of Jewish Vienna that you can visit and look around, or has it all gone?

There are remnants, although much is no more. When Torberg returned from the US he found only one café he felt still maintained the uninterrupted tradition of the cake shop. He said all the others were fakes, no more than a nostalgia for a Vienna that no longer existed. To my mind, though, Vienna still has many beautiful cafés, like my grandfather’s favourite, Landtmann, with the same leather seats, the same drapery, or there’s the Hawelka, the Schwarzenberg and the Central, where you can drink a mélange, or coffee topped with steamed milk.

The Jewish section of the vast central cemetery is also well worth a visit, with deer and hare streaking past the tombs of the famous and the unknown, grand family crypts and sunken, lichen-covered old stones.

Vienna is a well-run, agreeable city. The metro and the trains are great. You eat well. It’s clean. There are wonderful museums, the Kunsthistorisches Museum and the Leopold Museum. The Lubavitch Hassidic community has reintroduced Orthodox Jews and kosher supermarkets, but Vienna doesn’t feel like a Jewish city anymore. That atmosphere is completely gone.

It’s a very wealthy city now, which it wasn’t after the Austro-Hungarian Empire fell apart after World World I. Those interwar years were tough, that was part of the problem, and the Jews were scapegoated.

During the interwar years Vienna was very poor. There were constant demonstrations, street violence, beggars going through dustbins. Jews were scapegoated for the anger, the frustration of a defeated population. Austrian anti-Semitism was said to have been particularly virulent, worse than in Germany. But what Jews represented to the Viennese is very confusing. They were socialists and they were capitalists, they were this and they were that. It wasn’t simply that they were rich, they were also peddlers and beggars.

Many Jews, like my grandfather, felt little, if any, kinship with the Eastern European Jews dressed in kaftans and wearing side locks. For him they came from another world. But in the eyes of the Viennese, they were one and the same. Integrated Viennese Jews could feel empathy towards the poor Galician Jew in the street, and yet great distance as well.

Next on your list of books about Jewish Vienna is Arthur Schnitzler’s The Road into the Open.

This was bold and prescient. Written in 1908, the story centres around an aristocratic composer and his brother who are not Jewish, but have many Jewish friends who they meet in artistic salons and elsewhere. The book runs the gamut of middle-class Jewish identity in Vienna—you have the Zionist, the Jewish semi-aristocrat (who’s pretending he isn’t Jewish), the converted Jew, atheists and believers, social democrats and Eastern European Jews. I found it fascinating.

Freud called Schnitzler his doppelgänger. He said that Schnitzler understood intuitively what he himself had gathered by talking to lots and lots of patients. The two weren’t friends, but they admired each other and met a number of times.

Everyone in Schnitzler’s novel is preoccupied with the issue of whether they feel Jewish first or Austrian. And that’s fundamental to the whole Jewish Austrian way of being. The character called Bermann, who is a writer and a little bit Schnitzler himself, says Jews don’t suffer from a persecution complex, but from a security mania that will be their downfall. They’re not lucid enough. Schnitzler basically felt that the only solution for German-speaking Jews was to find their own answer—whether Zionism or socialism—while staying aware of their Jewish background because nobody was going to let them forget it.

“My father was always aware that he had escaped death in a concentration camp”

The book also expresses the sexual mores of Vienna in those days. Schnitzler coined the expression ‘sweet young thing’, for the pretty young woman of working-class origin—who works in a shop or as a seamstress—and with whom boys from richer backgrounds have affairs. Vienna wasn’t a good place to be a woman if you were poor. Schnitzler was himself a compulsive womanizer. He kept diaries that were saved from book-burning by a Cambridge scholar who took them out in 1938, and they have since been published extensively. There’s thousands and thousands of words about his sexual conquests and he even counted the number of orgasms he had.

But he was also culturally voracious. He frequently went to the theatre and wrote an excellent play called Professor Bernhardi about anti-Semitism. It concerns a Jewish professor who runs a clinic in Vienna where one of his patients is a young woman dying after an abortion. The priest wants to visit her but Bernhardi won’t let him because he says that she’s happy right now, and would learn she’s dying. Her death causes the start of an anti-Semitic campaign against the professor. Schnitzler was tackling anti-Semitism head-on long before the Second World War.

Let’s go on to book number three, which is The Radetzky March. In addition to being a piece of music by Johann Strauss Sr, it’s also a novel by Joseph Roth.

I know The Radetzky March has already been chosen by other people on Five Books. I’ve done so anyway because Joseph Roth is a totally lovable man and it’s a beautifully written novel. It’s twice been translated into English and both versions are wonderful, though I personally prefer the first one.

It’s the story of three generations of one family who are ennobled after an act of heroism by the oldest member. Some scenes take place in Vienna, but about a third of the novel is set on the edge of empire in Galicia on the Russian frontier. Many of the characters have Hungarian and Slovenian names, and you feel the mix of ethnicities and nationalities.

The emperor himself appears only twice in the novel, but he’s a red thread throughout, pictures with his China blue eyes and side whiskers hanging from walls and Radetkzy March played regularly. You hear a few strains in a brothel, or in the street on a barrel organ.

The novel, though quite short, features deeply moving set pieces with great subtlety of feeling. Ones that stick in my mind are between an old man and his dying servant or a Jewish doctor who fights a duel and is going to die from his injuries. It was published in 1932 and you see the decline of empire through three generations of the same family.

To a certain extent in this novel, but more in his other writings, Roth wrote about what the decline of the empire meant to the Jews. The double assassination at Sarajevo was a terrible moment, in Roth’s view, because it heralded the end of his homeland. With competing ethnicities and the rise of nationalism and so many wanting their own country, the Jews no longer had a homeland. So he lost his country.

Roth was born in 1894 in Slovenia. His father left when he was a baby and later went insane. Roth was himself a heavy, heavy drinker. After 1919, he worked for a while for an Austrian newspaper, writing typically Viennese feuilletons, the colour piece on the front page. He was a master at this and said it was all about saying true things in half a page. He became very well known and highly paid. Then he left for the Frankfurter Zeitung, which sent him as correspondent to Paris and Berlin. There he drank himself to death; he said the only way he could live was by drinking to excess, even if that was shortening his life.

Much of his writing has been published in English, including his journalism when in Germany. He was a monarchist to the end because he felt that under Emperor Franz Josef ethnic groups managed to cohabit. Roth had a deep nostalgia for that period, even if also very critical of it.

Franz Josef ennobled some Jewish families, didn’t he?

The emperor was not an anti-Semite. He was good for the Jews, and they liked him. In my book I write about how, when his son Rudolf committed suicide at Mayerling, my great-grandmother was so upset she gave premature birth to her first son. They identified with him and his family woes. Franz Josef was very firm in a number of situations, including when he refused to confirm Karl Lueger as mayor of Vienna because of his anti-Semitic statements.

I recently read a New York Times article from 1982 which argued that Hitler’s anti-Semitism came from his time in Vienna.

It’s said Hitler was very influenced by Karl Lueger and that he even studied his way of speaking. So yes, maybe he did pick up some of it in Vienna. He went back to a very medieval kind of anti-Semitism in Mein Kampf, of the Jewish man waiting behind street corners to leap on gentile woman, of blood rites and the like. I suppose he may have formed some of these ideas in his native Austria.

But some of my family—and some authors, like George Clare who we’ll get to in a minute—thought that, in the long term, Karl Lueger had not been such an enemy of the Jews. They thought the same would happen with Hitler in 1933, that when he was elected he’d tone down his anti-Semitism.

Another book I’d like to mention is Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, an unfinished three-volume novel. Musil was an engineer by training and he too wrote about the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but in such a different way from Roth that it’s almost the opposite. Musil centres his story in Vienna and writes much like a scientist, going into an almost clinical analysis of the interactions between people. Roth’s focus is at the border of the empire, and his approach is much more emotional and poetic. They make an interesting contrast in the study of the same period.

Does Musil also regret the passing of the Austro-Hungarian Empire?

Yes. He wasn’t a Jew, though. And then you have Stefan Zweig and The World of Yesterday.

OK yes, let’s move on to your next choice, Stefan Zweig’s memoir. The playwright David Hare called it “one of the greatest memoirs of the twentieth century.”

I don’t know if I’d agree with that, but it is a gripping read, written just before he committed suicide in Brazil. What I like about his memoir are the passages about Vienna. His father was in textile manufacturing and his mother came from quite a wealthy family. As a young man, he wanted to write poetry. Describing his theatre-going and his passion for culture he says, “You were not truly Viennese without a love for culture, a bent for enjoying and assessing the prodigality of life as something sacred.”

Zweig mentions the intellectual drive of the Jews, which he felt dated back thousands of years and brought them to a peak of achievement in that period in Vienna in the interwar years.

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He also wrote vividly about witnessing the outbreak of the First World War. A pacifist, he notes the excitement, the exhilarated men and women out in the streets craving to rush off to battle. He doesn’t tell you much about himself or his wife, but describes people, particularly fellow authors, in a very generous manner. He was a good friend of Roth’s, and tried to convince him to drink less. He also knew Rilke and Herzl and Schiele, and describes Freud. When he travelled he met people like the French writer Romain Rolland, and was convinced that the future lay in pan-Europeanism.

He also talked about being Jewish. The title of his book, The World of Yesterday, refers to the world of security before World War One. People’s lives were steadily improving until the 28th of June 1914 and the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. He says that at that time, “to the German I am a Jew masked as a German. To the Jew I am a German faithless to Israel.” He was in this uncomfortable position because he wasn’t a Zionist. Many middle class Austrian Jews felt that a Jewish homeland in  Palestine was a good option for East European Jews, who had had such a hard time, but for themselves, who felt truly German and belonged to the German culture, it made no sense.

The World of Yesterday was written in a rush when Zweig was really desperate. He hated America and was deeply depressed. So he writes it in that kind of state of mind.

Let’s move on to the last of your books about Jewish Vienna, which is George Clare’s Last Waltz in Vienna. 

It’s funny and sad. He was an only child born in 1920. His grandfather had been a Jewish army surgeon, something of a rarity, who rose quite high in the ranks. His father was a banker so they were quite well-off. He describes his childhood with humour, his relationship to his moody father who has explosions of anger, and his adoring mother. It was a typical Viennese Jewish middle-class family, and he draws a wonderfully affectionate portrait of his parents.

He also shows how German culture was central to his parents’ pleasure in life, Goethe, Schiller and all the rest of them. He wrote the book as a way of plucking a rather typical family out of the anonymity of mass slaughter. They all got out of Austria and ended up in Ireland, but then his parents went to France, from where they were deported and killed in the camps. He had the guilt all survivors seem to have. He always remembered a phone conversation with his father who said, ‘Maybe I should come back to Ireland, though I prefer being in France’ and Clare had said ‘stay in France’ because he himself was enjoying a rather free and happy life in Ireland.

Oh no.

It’s a beautifully written book and very moving. He wrote another called Berlin Days. After the war, he went to Berlin and was involved in the denazification process. But he realized, after the war and in later years, how fundamental that Viennese childhood was to his identity and to who he was. He also makes the point that he uses the term mass murder or mass murderers, never the term ‘war criminals,’ because, he says, the Jews were not at war. To call the Nazis war criminals is wrong.

Why is Clare’s book called Last Waltz in Vienna, by the way, is there a lot of dancing in it?

It’s more just the idea of the happy days in Vienna when he was this much-loved boy. He became a journalist afterwards and had a career in journalism, working for Axel Springer, which explains why he writes so well.

I also want to mention Ruth Kluger because she wrote a book called Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered that is very unlike Clare’s book. She is roughly the same age but she stayed in Vienna very late with her mother. Both were deported to the concentration camps but survived. Kluger is an uncompromisingly truthful woman. It gives you a jolt, like the Hungarian Nobel Prize winner Imre Kertész’s Fateless about his own deportation, aged 14.

There isn’t a drop of self-indulgence in Kluger’s writing. She describes her relationship to her mother with unsparing honesty. Her mother had always been neurotic, but became a tower of strength in the camps. I’ve heard before that some people who seemed fragile psychologically were stronger in the camps than others who appeared less frail.

It’s also interesting to read her account of being in Vienna when most Jews had left, or had committed suicide. She sneaks out to the cinema, and describes a man secretly handing her an orange in the train when it’s going into a dark tunnel. He presses the orange in her hand. It’s a  little gesture…but there is no sentimentality in her book. It’s also a rare book by a woman remembering her experiences in Vienna.

I read the first bit where she’s talking about a woman who eventually died in the concentration camps. This woman had told her off when she was eight and she reports her own childhood feeling of not liking this woman very much. That’s another part of the confusion of the Holocaust: losing people about whom you had mixed feelings.

Yes, absolutely. My father said that he lost four cousins in the camps who were more or less his age, but he didn’t particularly like them. They’d meet, but not regularly, and usually fought and hit each other. He didn’t miss them, but he grieved deeply for two people, a woman cousin who jumped from a window in Trieste and his aunt who died in Sobibor.

It’s great you’ve written this family history, Uncle Otto’s Puppet Theatre. It’s really inspiring.

It meant a lot to me because my sister and I don’t have much family. We have two half-sisters and three cousins in America and that’s it. It’s also about not having an identity—feeling neither Irish nor Belgian. I owned these seven memoirs written by family members that served as the basis for the book, and lots of photos, so I felt I had a duty to put this story together.

But writing it also made me feel much more connected to my transgenerational inheritance, to the fact that I am the great-granddaughter of a schnapps bar owner in Vienna. Now I am going to write about the other side of my family, which is Irish. The two books will be a diptych. Maybe I’ll feel incredibly Irish after I’m done with that, but I don’t think it’ll be quite the same. For me, being Jewish is also about this feeling of not belonging anywhere, or of belonging in many places.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

January 13, 2021

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Brigid Grauman

Brigid Grauman

Brigid Grauman is a journalist and author who for 17 years was editor-in-chief of The Bulletin, Brussels’ English-language newsweekly. She has written for leading British and US media on a wide range of cultural topics. Her book, Uncle Otto’s Puppet Theatre, is available in English, German and Czech and is based on seven family memoirs.

Brigid Grauman

Brigid Grauman

Brigid Grauman is a journalist and author who for 17 years was editor-in-chief of The Bulletin, Brussels’ English-language newsweekly. She has written for leading British and US media on a wide range of cultural topics. Her book, Uncle Otto’s Puppet Theatre, is available in English, German and Czech and is based on seven family memoirs.